Guests Intro 3
Farms and landscapes are always good places for me to discover situations that I find attractive. Places where both our complimentary and adversarial attitudes toward our surroundings, including Nature, can play out. I rarely have people in my photographs and when I do, they are not usually the main focus of attention. When people are present in my depictions of landscapes, they mostly are of lesser consequence than their surroundings. I think in the overall pattern of things, how long the sun, mountains and oceans have been here, humans are relatively inconsequential. That is not to say that their affects are inconsequential. Science and technology have allowed recent civilizations to permanently alter the land, water and air to an extent that dwarfs all the affects of the entire history of earth’s accumulated inhabitants. I do not need people in my photographs to remind me or anyone else that humans and their influences are all around us. In fact, it would be quite difficult to find a place unaltered by humans; a place of true wilderness. I would guess most people can’t remember a place with no buildings, no roads, no signs, no fences, no music and no engine sounds. Wherever I point my camera there are affects and reflections of people’s actions and choices, so it would be true to say that every photograph I make is a portrait of someone and usually a portrait of a series of people over time.
The photographs in this show: “Guests on the Land” were made over a period of years and evolved out of my lifelong interest in, and attraction to, scenes or tableau where a story, action or history is revealed without the obvious actors being present. This selection of work comes from that larger body and is more narrowly focused on situations that feature rural, agricultural themes and were shot in the local southeastern Pennsylvania region. There is some historical and cultural background around agriculture that perhaps helps foreshadow and explain a few of the ideas and practices that are currently being debated and used. Our experiences with, and ideas about, agriculture have changed over time and the use of terms and images associated with farms and farming both reflect and help form those changes. Those cultural ideas somewhat affected me when I made these photographs and they may influence your experience viewing them.
Agriculture, the domestication of plants and animals, began in the Neolithic period 10,000 - 12,000 years ago. That early farming, in the present-day Near East, was limited to emmer and einkorn wheat, hulled barley, peas, lentils, bitter vetch, chick peas, and flax. Dogs, sheep, goats and later cattle and pigs completed the social settlements necessary for sustained agriculture. The symbols of the farmer and the shepherd are very powerful images going back through the cultures of the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and early mythology. Both settled, farming societies and nomadic herding societies valued their animals and depended on them not only for food, but also for shelter, clothing and tools. All early religions honored these animals and reflected their value in the worshipping societies. The monotheistic Abrahamic religions (believing in the one God of Abraham) which includes Christianity, Judaism and Islam are specially respectful of sheep. Sheep, lambs and shepherds are seen over and over in many symbolic ways. The ancient Sumerians (2000-4000 BC) and other polytheists worshipped many gods who sometimes shape-shifted between human and animal forms including sheep.
As these societies evolved, not as many members continued to be farmers and herdsmen. Those who labored outside of the larger centers of commerce and culture where sometimes thought to be less sophisticated and perhaps less educated. There is an equally long tradition; going back through the writings of Socrates (470-399 BC), Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Thomas Jefferson; of praise for the art of husbandry and the simpler rural life being more harmonious, having stronger spiritual connections to God through Nature and consequently possessing stronger character than city people. The opposite characterization for these writers and many more is that urban dwelling with its connections to capitalistic greed and technology gives rise to vice and weakness and therefore destroys independence and dignity. If the contest of these opposite ideals had stayed in debate and literature, the back and forth could have continued throughout current dramatic history and on into the future. But several recent developments in agricultural methods and technology and the backlash that came from proponents of more traditional farming brought these two historical ideologies right into the present.
In the mid-Twentieth Century, the “Green Revolution” occurred, which refers to the wide achievement of increased food production from cultigen (cultivated) grains, expanded irrigation, modernized management, hybridized seeds, synthetic fertilizers and chemical pesticides. Not everyone agrees with the premises of the Green Revolution which assumes convenient, high-yield, efficient and centralized food growth and distribution based on cheap and available fossil fuels, chemical supplementation and extensive processing are the best answers to civilization’s nutritional needs.
In the backlash group are subscribers to several schools of thought known as Agrarianism, New Agrarianism, Ruralism and any number of generalized “Back to the Land” movements. I think they would all agree to a general idea that agricultural “progress” has taken us away from the health and sustainability of land and the ancient connections and values that farming and wilderness had always provided. All promote some idea of more simplicity and a return or renewal of some past farming practices. Another principal supported by these thinkers is that many large, modern growers have forgotten the lessons of the older farmers and herders; that we are not the owners and the master of the Earth, but only one part of an inter-dependent system that includes the soil, water, plants, animals, air and people in local communities. When we sacrifice any one of these parts for profit or make shortsighted tradeoffs, we invite destruction for all. And not the least; it would be inexcusable and unforgivable to leave a wounded Earth to our descendants.
Their detractors accuse them of trying to “live in the past” and of promoting an “idealized rural utopia”. These critics are often large industrial agriculture groups that invest a lot of faith and money in chemical science and bigger, better technology. Profit is their major concern and their influence in forming public opinion and government policies is vast. They argue that change is absolute, whatever new that can be done must be done and that we must do whatever is necessary to compete.
“To husband is to use with care, to keep, to save, to make last, to conserve. Old usage tells us that there is a husbandry also of the land, of the soil, of the domestic plants and animals - obviously because of the importance of these things to the household.
Husbandry is the name of all practices that sustain life by connecting us conservingly to our places and our world; it is the art of keeping tied all the strands in the living network that sustains us.
And so it appears that most and perhaps all of industrial agriculture's manifest failures are the result of an attempt to make the land produce without husbandry.”
“The earth will not continue to offer its harvest, except with faithful stewardship. We cannot say we love the land and then take steps to destroy it for use by future generations.”
The photographs in this show do not show perfect farms, perfect people or perfect balance. Mostly they are humble farms and situations that present some of the struggles, possibilities and rewards of farmers trying to stay connected to the communities, land and animals they are stewarding. And as guests, they are hopefully improving the accommodations for whoever comes next. I hope this selection of images starts some considerations and conversations about small local choices that can make large improvements.